San Diego It's one of those urban legends everybody has heard: the police auction. Porsches can be had for $500, 48-inch TVs go for under $100, and mountain bikes sell for $20. To test the legend, I went to the San Diego Police Department's Auction at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley.
The bidding is scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m., but viewing of the wares starts at 9:00. When I arrive at 9:15, the parking lot is full and I have to park a quarter-mile down the street. Inside, a line of people waiting to see the merchandise extends out of the Corinthian ballroom and into the foyer of the building.
Along the front and left sides of the parquet-floored room, tables lined up end to end hold boxes of clothes, jewelry, stereo equipment, and tools, plus the occasional TV. This is a household-goods auction, so there will be no $500 Porsches. On the left side of the room, to the inside of the tables, a double row of bikes standing side by side stretches from the back to the front of the ballroom. Twenty rows of chairs on either side of a center aisle fill the middle of the room.
At 9:30 the ballroom is already crowded yet hordes of people still pour in. As they enter, they're handed a piece of paper explaining the rules of the auction -- cash or local check only, all sales final, no warranties -- then they file past the tables, inspecting the goods. Everything to be sold bears a lot number, which the auctioneer will call out before he starts the bidding. Small items such as clothes, jewelry, and radios are packaged together in boxes. Large items -- TVs, bikes, computers -- will be sold individually. The auction-goers write down the lot numbers of things they want on the paper they were given at the door. That way, even if they can't see an item when the bidding starts, they'll know it by number.
The legend of the police auction takes its first hit when the auctioneer, a medium-sized man around 50 with sandy blond hair and mustache, announces from the raised podium, "You may have heard some amazing stories about police auctions, but the truth is people pay fair prices here. It's not a giveaway auction. Look around you; you've got high rollers everywhere here. So if you think you're going to stay and there's something you want to bid on, you'd better be thinking about getting a seat now. Otherwise, you'll have to stand in the back."
Leaning against the back wall, 23-year-old Shawn Moran, who lives in Mission Valley, says he "saw the ad in the paper and thought I'd show up."
If the price is good, he may buy a bike or maybe some stereo equipment. But he's not hopeful. Pointing at the crowd in front of him, now up to 500 with more piling in every second, he says, "I'm guessing that with this auction, because there are so many people, things are going to go kind of high. The last auction I went to was in a small town in New Jersey, and you could get bikes for $5. Here, I think everything is going to be expensive."
Scott Sanderson of La Mesa has attended two police auctions before today's but has never bought anything. "They usually end up going higher than I want to pay," he explains, delivering another hit to the legend. "I'm here for deals."
Sanderson, 42, has brought $160 with him today, "but that doesn't mean I want to spend it all. I saw the Gibson guitar over there, which is pretty nice. But if it goes over $100 I'm not going to bid. I'm not going to pay that kind of money at an auction. You can't really inspect the thing, so the risk is you get it home and find out it doesn't work. The TV over there with the speakers, I'd pay $150 for it. But it's going to go, I bet you, for $400 or $500. But you never know; that's what's weird about these auctions."
Twenty-seven-year-old Arturo Martinez from Chula Vista has heard the police-auction legend. "I've heard that there are real good bargains and a lot of good stuff here. So I figured I wanted to see it myself."
But Martinez doesn't plan on bidding this morning, even though he saw "a lot of good stuff" on the tables. "I'm here to observe," he explains. "That way I'll be prepared for next time. I don't want to make a mistake and end up buying something for $400."
Ted Jarvis, 37, drove in from Campo with his young son to attend this morning's auction. "I've lived in the San Diego area a long time, and every year I hear about it. I happened to read the Union-Tribune yesterday and saw it was going on this morning. So I figured this time I'd hit it and see if there are any good deals. But I'll be surprised if any real good deals are had, especially on the electronics. The number of people here today is going to drive the prices up. It looks like there are 600 people in here. I think people are going to pay more than what the stuff is worth."
Despite predicting high prices, Jarvis still plans on bidding. "My hand will go up," he says. "Getting in on the bidding is the fun part. If I see a big car stereo amp with a Sony CD player, I'll go up to 50 or 75 bucks. I'm not going to go much more than that because for 200 bucks I can get a good system with a warranty. If the price goes too high, I'll back out. But if I put in a bid, I may just get a good deal."
At 10 o'clock, uniformed police officers clear people away from the tables and bikes and out of the aisles. The seats are all full and standing auction-goers cram the back and right side of the room. The auctioneer gives some last-minute instructions.